by Matt Walker
One amphibian has evolved a bizarre and gruesome defence mechanism to protect itself against predators.
When attacked, the Spanish ribbed newt pushes out its ribs until they pierce through its body, exposing a row of bones that act like poisonous barbs.
The newt has to force its bones through its skin every time it is attacked, say scientists who have described the form and function of the barbs in detail.
Yet this bizarre behaviour appears not to cause the newt any ill effects.
The ability of the Spanish ribbed newt to expose its rib bones was first noticed by a natural historian in 1879.
But scientists have now used modern photographic and X-ray imaging techniques to reveal just how the animal does it.
And what they discovered is even more gruesome than they imagined.
When the newt becomes agitated or perceives a threat, it swings its ribs forward, increasing their angle to the spine by up to 50 degrees.
As it does this, the newt keeps the rest of its body still.
"The forward movement of the ribs increases the body size and stretches the skin to the point of piercing it," says zoologist Egon Heiss of the University of Vienna in Austria.
The tips of the newt's ribs then stick outside its body, like exposed spines.
But there is more to the newt's defence, Heiss and his Vienna-based colleagues report in the Journal of Zoology.
"When teased or attacked by a predator, [the newt] secretes a poisonous milky substance onto the body surface. The combination of the poisonous secretion and the ribs as 'stinging' tools is highly effective," says Heiss.
The impact on any predator can be striking, particularly if they try to bite the newt or pick it up using their mouth.
Then the poison in almost injected into the thin skin within the mouth, causing severe pain or possibly death to the attacker.
As well as elucidating the spear-like shape of the ribs, and exactly how the ribs swing forward and protrude, the scientists have demonstrated that the bones must break through the newt's body wall every time the amphibian evokes the defence response.
Initially, it was thought that the ribs may passively emerge through pores, rather than be actively driven through the body wall.
Surprisingly, the newt, which is related to other newts and salamanders, appears to suffer no major ill effects, despite repeatedly puncturing its own body and exposing its rib bones.
"Newts, and amphibians in general, are known to have an extraordinary ability to repair their skin," says Heiss.
"Anyway, if this newt can avoid being eaten in some cases, this surely has a positive influence."
It also seems that the newt is immune to its own poison, which is normally confined to glands in the newt's body.
When the newt wounds itself by exposing its ribs, the poison can seep into its body tissue, again apparently with no ill effects.
Heiss now hopes to investigate which compounds are in the poison.
In August 1939, just weeks before Hitler invaded Poland, the Soviet Union and Japan fought a massive tank battle on the Mongolian border – the largest the world had ever seen.
Under the then unknown Georgy Zhukov, the Soviets won a crushing victory at the batte of Khalkhin-Gol (known in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident). Defeat persuaded the Japanese to expand into the Pacific, where they saw the United States as a weaker opponent than the Soviet Union. If the Japanese had not lost at Khalkhin Gol, they may never have attacked Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese decision to expand southwards also meant that the Soviet Eastern flank was secured for the duration of the war. Instead of having to fight on two fronts, the Soviets could mass their troops – under the newly promoted General Zhukov – against the threat of Nazi Germany in the West.
In terms of its strategic impact, the battle of Khalkhin Gol was one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War, but no-one has ever heard of it. Why?
It was perhaps not all that surprising that the Soviet Union and Japan, two expansionist powers who just happened to be close neighbours, butted heads in the Mongolian borderlands.
Tensions between the two had been high for decades, and had erupted into open conflict on a number of occasions. Japan had clearly had an edge over Russia during the early part of the 20th century – it had decisively defeated Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 (a conflict most memorable, perhaps, for the Russian Navy’s folly of sailing its entire Baltic fleet around the globe only to be promptly sunk by the Japanese Navy within days of its arrival), and had occupied Vladivostock for several years during the Russian civil war.
But, by the 1930s, the Soviet Union under Stalin was a resurgent power, and had become a major regional rival to the Japanese. The Japanese High Command were particularly concerned about the threat Soviet submarines posed to Japanese shipping, and the ease with which Soviet bombers, operating out of Vladivostok, would be able to reach Tokyo.
By the late 1930s, both Mongolia and bordering Manchuria (Manchukuo) were Soviet and Japanese puppet states.
The border between the two was hotly disputed. Japanese backed Manchuria claimed that the border ran along the Khalkhin-Gol river, whereas the Mongolians argued that the border actually ran just east of Nomonhan village, some 10 miles east of the river.
Although the two countries had previously fought some minor skirmishes (most notably at Changkufeng/Lake Khasan in 1938, a battle which resulted in more than 2,500 casualties on both sides), the battle of Khalkin Gol was sparked when, on 11 May 1938, a small Mongolian cavalry united entered the disputed area in search of grazing for their horses. They were quickly given a bloody nose and expelled by a larger Manchurian unit but, within days, the Mongolians returned with greater support and forced the Manchurian forces to retreat.
The conflict slowly but gradually escalated until Soviet and Japanese forces were drawn into direct conflict. On 28 May Soviet forces surrounded and destroyed a Japanese reconnaisance unit. The Japanese unit, led by Lt Colonel Yaozo Azuma suffered 63% casualties in total, losing 8 officers and 97 men, plus suffering 34 wounded.
A month of relative quiet followed this battle. But, instead of using the time to consider a peace deal, both sides redoubled their efforts to build up their forces in the region.
Daring Japanese Air Raid
The quiet was shattered on 27 June by a daring Japanese air-raid on the Soviet air base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. The unprepared Soviets lost many planes on the ground although, once they got airborne they gave a good account of themselves. Their skill, however, could not prevent the Japanese pilots returning gloriously home, having destroyed twice as many Soviet planes as they had lost themselves.
However, their glory was short-lived. The Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters, based in Tokyo, had not been told of the attack in advance, and was not amused at the local commander’s initiative. When news of the raid reached Tokyo, furious Generals immediately ordered that no further air strikes would be launched – a decision for which Japanese foot-soldiers later paid a high price.
The Japanese ground attack
Despite their decision to withdraw air cover, Tokyo was happy to authorise a land-based operation to “expell the invaders.”
Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara, well schooled officer, planned a devastating two-pronged assault that would encircle and destroy the Soviet armies and bring him a glorious victory.
His Northern task force launched its first assalt on 1st July. After easily crossing the Khalkhin Gol river, Japanse soldiers drove the Soviet forces from Baintsagan Hill and quickly began to advance southwards. The following day his Southern task force followed them with another massive assault.
However, Komatsubara soldiers were ill-prepared, and not able to take advantage of their early success. Poor logistical planning meant that their supply line across the river consisted of just one pontoon bridge.
Seizing their opportunity, the Soviets under Zhukov quickly rallied 450 tanks for a daring counter-attack. Despite being entirely without infrantry support, they attacked the Japanese task force on three sides, and very nearly encircled them.
By 5 July, the battered Japanese Northern Taskforce had been forced back across the river.
The second Japanese attack
Following the failure of their first attack, the Japanese withdrew and planned their next move. Defeat was not an option for Komatsubara. After giving his soldiers a fortnight to recover, and restock their supplies, he conceived another assault plan – this one relying on brute force.
On 23 July, backed by a massive artillery bombardment, the Japanese threw two divisions of troops at the Soviet forces that had, by now, crossed the river and were defending the Kawatama bridge. wo days of fierce fighting resulted in some minor Japanse advances, but they were unable to break Soviet lines and reach the bridge. Despite thousands of casualties, the battle was effectively a stalemate.
Unable to progress further, and rapidly running out of artillery supplies, the Japanese decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and disengaged to plan a third assault.
The Soviet Counter-attack
Planning for a third Japanse assault went well, but the Soviets under Zhukov beat Lt Gen Komatsubara to the punch.
By August 20th, Zhukov had amassed a force of more than 50,000 men, 498 tanks and 250 planes. Matched against him was a similarly sized, but not well armoured Japanese force, that had no idea the Soviet counter-attack was coming.
A classic combined arms assault followed, as thousands of Soviet infantry attacked the Japanese centre, Soviet armour encircled the Japanese flanks, and the Soviet air-force and artillery pounded the Japanese from long-range.
By August 31st, the encircled Japanese force had been decimated and surrounded. A few Japanese units managed to break out of the encirclement, but those who remained followed Japanse martial tradition and refused to surrender.
Zhukov wiped them out with air and artillery attacks.
The conflict ends
Just one day later, half way across the world Hitler and Stalin invaded and carved up Poland.
Despite technically being an ally of Nazi Germany, it became prudent for Stalin to ensure that he Eastern flank was also secure. Rather than advancing to push home their tactical advantage and escalate the conflict, Zhukov’s armies were ordered not to press home their advantage. Instead, they were ordered to dig in and hold their position at Khalkhin Gol – the border they had previously claimed as theirs.
The total number of casualties suffered by each side is far from clear, particularly as neither Imperial Japan nor the Soviet Union were particularly ‘open’ societies.
Official statistics report just over 17,000 Japanese total casualties, compared with around 9,000 on the Soviet side. Some historians claim that Japan lost more than 45,000 men, while the victorious Soviet armies lost a ‘mere’ 17,000 men.
Most likely, as always, the true figure lies somewhere in the middle.
How Khalkhin-Gol changed the course of history
The battle of Khalkhin-Gol decisively showed the expansionist Japanese military that it was not a match for the Soviets – particularly while Japanese forces were still bogged down throughout China. The Soviets under combined their forces to stunning effect, while Japanese tactics remained stuck in a pre-modern mindset that valued honour and personal bravery more highly on the battlefield than massed forces and armour.
When Hitler finally invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the Japanese, although tempted to join the attack, remembered the lessons of Khalkhin Gol and decided to remain on the sidelines, ensuring that the stretched Soviet military could focus its forces on just one front. This, in turn, meant that Nazi Germany was forced to fight a four year war on two fronts – against the Soviets in the East, and the British and Americans in the West.
Defeat at Khalkhin-Gol can also be seen as a major factor in the Japanese decision to expand into the Pacific. As expansion to the North-West was no longer an option, ill defended and scattered colonial territories made far easier targets. Even the United States was deemed a less formidable adversary than the Soviet Union and, if the Japanse had not lost at Khalkhin-Gol, they would surely have never attacked Pearl Harbour.
However, although the Japanese probably took the sensible strategic course after Khalkhin Gol of targetting a ‘weaker’ opponent, they didn’t learn the combat lessons dealt out by the Soviet army. Honour and bravery remained central to the Japanese military mentality and, once they had recovered from the initial onslaught, the United States and Britain were able to mass their forces and push the Japanese out of the Pacific and back to the Home Islands in one brutal battle after another.
Canada is a leading producer, and exporter, of illegal synthetic drugs
by Misha Glenny
The United States and its allies have been prosecuting the war on drugs for almost a century. They have never looked like they’re winning but they have carried on regardless. In the past year, however, the supporters of drug prohibition have suffered some important tactical defeats. The bipartisan consensus in Washington, although still powerful, is beginning to slip. But there is a strategic issue now facing supporters of prohibition that presents them with their toughest challenge yet, and Canada will be a key battleground. This will unfold in the next decade and may bring an end to the war on drugs, which has consistently failed to achieve its stated aims despite devouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars.
At the heart of this problem lie synthetic drugs—pills that are changing the rules, pushing out the old organic masters, cocaine and heroin, and turning the geopolitics of narcotics upside down. It is something that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is beginning to fret about.
For years, UNODC and its boss, Antonio Maria Costa, have been among the most vocal supporters of the war on drugs. UNODC has been the United States’ spearhead for its global campaign (it is the only UN agency for which Washington coughs up its contribution on time every year without moaning about it). And appointments like Costa’s are carefully vetted by the Americans. He and his colleagues have long demanded ever-more punitive responses against drug users and traffickers with a rhetoric that stands in sharp contrast to the usual strains of Kumbaya coming out of most UN agencies. I was shocked when Sandro Calvani, Costa’s representative in Bogota and a biologist by background, told me, “If somebody should tell me that they have found a new Agent Orange gas that kills all coca but damages the environment very heavily, I would consider it.”
But earlier this year, a note of despair could be heard in Antonio Maria Costa’s voice when he addressed the 10-year review of UNODC in Vienna. Despite an intense policing and PR campaign in the major drug producer and consumer areas around the world, the use of drugs has been steadily rising in volume and spreading in geographical reach. The latest region to fall under the dark shadow of South America’s cocaine cartels is West Africa—countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, fresh from a decade of diamond-driven fratricide, are now used as staging posts for cocaine export to Europe. The wealth and power of the criminal gangs who control these vast markets have ballooned. There has been no concomitant increase in resources available to law enforcement.
In recognition of the difficulties facing the U.S.’s policy on narcotics, the Obama administration quietly told its official representatives to stop using the phrase “war on drugs,” at UNODC’s review conference. A month later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crossed another line on an official visit to Mexico City when she became the first senior American official to admit that demand for cocaine and cannabis use in the United States is a central driver of the drug problem.
But the most vocal criticism of the war on drugs comes from the developing world and especially South America. It’s been denounced by countless senior lawmakers, law enforcement officers and judges, especially in two countries most devastated by the trade—Brazil and Mexico. In February, three former presidents from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico published a searing critique of American policies, highlighting how their countries bear the brunt of the violence and instability generated by the criminal trade in drugs.
Canada—and Vancouver in particular—has had a few beginners’ lessons in the past couple of years about how distressing the violence associated with wholesale drug trafficking, as opposed to mere drug consumption, can be. But if UNODC is correct in its prognosis, the drug problem in Canada is about to get worse, not better. The reason for this lies in shifting patterns of drug consumption.
In the past two years, heroin, cocaine and even cannabis consumption has levelled off—partly because supply is now satisfying demand. But at the same time, the use of synthetic drugs—chiefly methamphetamine, amphetamine and ecstasy (MDMA)—has begun to grow rapidly. The trend was already obvious to U.S. border guards in Washington state two years ago. At Oroville, just across from Osoyoos, B.C., U.S. customs officers told me that while marijuana and cocaine seizures remain at a constant level, they were finding increasingly large amounts of methamphetamine and ecstasy in trucks and cars going from Canada into the U.S.
While America boasts the largest number of laboratories producing these pills, Canada’s labs are the largest on the continent, especially the ecstasy factories. They are largely controlled by the Asian gangs and Hells Angels chapters who both played such a big role in turning up the violence associated with the cocaine and marijuana industries in the greater Vancouver area. UNODC’s World Drug Report 2009 points out that “Canada has grown to be the most important producer of MDMA for North America, and since 2006, all ecstasy laboratories reported have been large-capacity facilities operated principally by Asian organized crime groups.”
The chemicals required for methamphetamine production, known as precursors, are relatively freely available and many can be purchased over the counter. Obviously, industrial scale manufacturing processes require industrial amounts of precursors. They are harder to obtain, and so both the U.S. and Canada have witnessed the growth in “smurﬁng” techniques—the laborious but effective process of purchasing legally available amounts of the precursors from pharmacies all over the country.
The prevalence of precursors, the availability of highly qualified chemists, and the high level of existing drug production (chiefly marijuana) in provinces like B.C. means that Canada is steadily transforming from being primarily a consumer country into a producer nation. There is evidence, the World Drug Report continues, that “Canada-based Asian organized crime groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs have significantly increased the amount of methamphetamine they manufacture and export for the U.S. market, but also for Oceania and East and Southeast Asia.”
Japan, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia are among the biggest consumers of synthetic drugs. If Canada becomes a pivotal manufacturer for this area as well as for consumers at home and in the U.S., then this is a game changer. The trend will simply overwhelm Canadian law enforcement, already stretched beyond capacity with the marijuana industry and the cocaine transit trade.
A similar phenomenon is now being detected in Europe. In Britain, police have been confronted with a significant growth in home-grown marijuana production (largely under the control of Vietnamese gangs). But amphetamine and ecstasy laboratories are also springing up there as well as in Holland and throughout eastern Europe. The European Union is the largest drug market in the world—once production processes become entrenched there, the narcotics can move to the customers across the Union without let or hindrance.
It will be a long time before there is a critical drop in cocaine and heroin consumption, but advances in narcotics production will eventually condemn them to the loneliness of a niche market. Instead, Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe are set to become the industrial narcotics producers of the 21st century. At least this offers some hope for the current epicentres of organic drug production like Colombia and Afghanistan. It was Sandra Calvani, a committed drug warrior, who made the extremely perceptive observation:
“Cocaine has no future. Wherever amphetamines and synthetic drugs have arrived on the market, then there is always a big boom and it replaces everything: cocaine, heroin, the lot. It is a pill that looks like an aspirin and is much more user-friendly; it works fast and doesn’t involved the paraphernalia of injecting or sniffing, a much better kind of drug—more dangerous but it works. So the future is in the new drugs. The market will change and determine this. They don’t need the narco-traffickers. The future will be completely different.”
And that future may be just enough to persuade the Western world that the war on drugs needs a rethink.
"Incidentally, in an Angus Reid poll several years ago, more than half of Canada supported decriminalization of pot. If I remember correctly, a government committee recommended outright legalization. I strongly suspect the only reason government makes a show of caring about it is to appease the Americans."
Ground squirrels use their fluffy tails as a sun screen in the desert heat and, when a Cape Cobra makes an unwelcome appearance, their tails double up as a weapon to torment the snake into submission. Fascinating short animal video from BBC wildlife show Wild Africa.
and the saga continues
On Tuesday August 5 we reconvened at the field behind the Station 41 fire department in Waverley NS to shoot the second video in the trilogy, United Breaks Guitars: Song 2. Once again, everyone volunteered their time and talent to produce an outstanding video; however, Song 2 was a much bigger production than United Breaks Guitars. In addition to the main roles, we had nearly 100 extras in the cast and in order to say everything we wanted to say with the video, we required a broken guitar, an imitation broken guitar, a 40 foot high scissor lift, a limousine (complete with secret service agents), one genuine imitation space capsule, a space suit, a tuba, 3 suits of German Lederhosen, a canoe, one white panel van and a woman willing to wear tights and a big dollar sign.